Engineers of Victory by Paul Kennedy

This book was certainly an interesting surprise.  I was expecting something more specific about equipment and weapons development during the Second World War.  The subtitle is about “Problem Solvers”.  It might have been better called something like “How Things got Done”; or a “celebration of mid-level leaders”.

The 370 pages of text are broken into five lengthy chapters examining different critical campaigns from January 1943 to July 1944, and looking at the nuts and bolts of how they were won by the allies.  It certainly isn’t a narrative history, more of a deep analysis.  And that may be the very thing that kept it interesting for someone who has read far more on this period of time than I can even remember.  The five campaigns, or specific challenges, dealt with here are The Battle of the Atlantic, Winning Air Superiority over Western Europe, Stopping the Wehrmacht, Amphibious Operations in Europe and Conquering the Vast Distances of the Pacific.

In each of these chapters the author weaves together all the details, the complexity, the interconnectedness of things needed to make things work.  I found that fascinating from beginning to end.  It is so often true when we read campaign or battle histories we come up short on greater context, but this book provides context in abundance and helps us keep track of how all the details come together. Whether its the cavity magnetron, T-34 testing at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, mating the Merlin to the Mustang or amphibious theory by Pete Ellis; there is just a staggering level of stuff here.  As is so often the case with “big picture” stories like this there are several detail errors on little things, naturally I most notice it on aircraft but I’m sure other readers will have some other little nits to pick.  But it really is just in the little stuff I have some complaints.

Fascinating and fun book.

~ Dave 

About atcDave

I'm 5o-something years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I was an air traffic controller for 33 years and recently retired; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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28 Responses to Engineers of Victory by Paul Kennedy

  1. jfwknifton says:

    Sounds an excellent book. I always enjoy a book with a new angle on what you think are well known historical events.

  2. Sounds good, I tend to enjoy the technical and factual books and an analysis of these events is always an interesting read.

  3. Ernie Davis says:

    I’ve never followed the history of the pacific as much as Europe, but I have always thought that the staggering scale of the Pacific war and the logistics of how to support it was something I needed to look in to at some point.

    • atcDave says:

      Yeah the Pacific has a very different dynamic to it. In terms of fighting men and weapons it was a much smaller war, at least until about mid ’44. But the logistics of it are staggering; and more than anything else that was the decisive factor. I’ve always loved it as a war gamer; having to pick fights all about distances, supplies, routes…
      I would normally hesitate to recommend an analytical type history before a good narrative one; but the writer here does a great job of dealing with the scope of it all. And that may actually make it a terrific introduction.

    • Ernie Davis says:

      I do have a pretty good general knowledge of the narrative history of the Pacific theaters (Except CBI is still pretty much a mystery outside “Bridge on the River Kwai or Flying Tigers”). I am aware of the major sea and land battles and their consequences. I may give it a try while on vacation.

      • atcDave says:

        Cool. Let me know if you have any other thoughts on it. Unless, you know, you think I’m a total idiot for liking the book. Keep that to yourself.
        CBI is interesting, even if not much is written about it. The period covered here was mostly stagnant though. But one thing, many analysts consider William Slim the best British general of WWII and he fought in the CBI.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        It has always struck me, and I may have said it before, that by 1941 China had ground to a stalemate for Japan, and aside from the burst of post Pearl Harbor in the Burma and India parts of that theater, it remained so for the majority of the war. Plenty of brutal fighting and heroic efforts to break the stalemate mind you, and some very brave and innovative efforts to break the supply chain problems, but it seems to me everyone was pretty much stuck with their situation and what they had as resources by early 1942.

      • atcDave says:

        There were campaigns and movement. It was actually alarming how, in China, Japan was able to wage effective offensives almost the end. There were significant operations, including regular and irregular, in India and Burma too. But it was significantly a backwater and an area of some dispute between Americans and British (Churchill was worried about “Empire”, which FDR did not want anything to do with; while Americans were more interested in China which the British considered hopeless and corrupt).
        And hey, it’s the one place where M3 Grant/Lee tanks were in use to the end of the war.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        Just to let you know, I got it and as I near the end of the Battle of the Atlantic, I’m pretty impressed. Only drawback was the slight snarkiness about those who bought the Bletchley Park meme that make for a far better movie than a realization that 4 escorts and prayer won’t protect a convoy.

      • atcDave says:

        He does get snarky at times!
        I think his main objection, on several levels, is towards those who push one issue as the thing that won the war. And there have been several such claims about Ultra in recent years.
        And a lot of that is just typical with academics, kind of a snarky group.

        I’m glad you’re liking it so far!

      • Ernie Davis says:

        No, I get it, he has a point. A couple of Canadian Aircraft mechanics adding an extra fuel tank to a B24 contributed just as much to that eventual victory, as did the change in doctrine and improved radars. Just thought it could have been done with a more generous tone for those of us who don’t read original source material for fun.

      • atcDave says:

        Yeah I do agree about that.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        I do love books that break a few myths. One of my favorites was that RAF pilots wore silk scarves out of some sort of vanity, when in fact it was just because they had to have their heads on a constant swivel, and their woolen uniforms chafed their necks.

      • atcDave says:

        Or that Sherman tanks just explode as soon as they see a panzer…

  4. Ernie Davis says:

    Well I’m well in to chapter 4, but I just wanted to comment on chapter 3, because thank god someone has finally debunked some of the T-34 myths. It was a very good tank, no doubt. Armor and gun were first rate, but that’s about as far as it goes. It was incredibly hard to operate, with early versions having crews standing on ammunition boxes. It’s only saving grace in the early years was that the armor was good and the gun was good, so that despite it’s flaws, there was a decent chance it could survive an encounter with the early panzers long enough to take one out.

    The reputations of the early T-34 and the late Sherman are practically mirror images. The early T-34 never got the criticism it deserved, and the mid to late shermans never got the credit they deserved.

    • atcDave says:

      I think that’s well put. The Christie suspension in particular gets crazy accolades.
      I think it was something by Steven Zaloga (in a history of US armor) describes the T-34 as the best medium tank of 1942, the Sherman as the best medium of 1943, and the Panther the best of 1944.
      Obviously all three tanks have issues, but I found that an intriguing way of looking at it.
      It’s also worth mentioning the T-34 and Sherman in particular got much better in later forms,even if they weren’t quite so cutting edge by the time they reached maturity. Or is that a truism?

      • Ernie Davis says:

        I can’t think of any tank or weapons system in general that got worse with time and development, so yeah, maybe. But there is still an argument that simply building on a solid foundation is better than throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

      • atcDave says:

        There are definitely examples of irrelevant “improvements”, or keeping a system around past its date. But yeah, improving a good design is wiser than constantly pursuing perfection.

  5. Ernie Davis says:

    Well I finally finished, and overall I thought it was very good with some excellent insights on how the allies were able to adapt and re-engineer and reprioritize in a much more flexible manner than the axis with their embedded and obsolete ideologies. He is a bit too much of a Wehrmacht fan for my taste. Undoubtedly they were a very formidable fighting force, certainly the best from ’39 to ’42-43, and certainly some of their bigger defeats were due as much to material shortage and too-small-for-the-job forces as being outfought, but you can’t overlook the fact that in the summer of ’44 the 3rd army rolled over them like they were a boyscout troop and in the battle of the bulge the full force of the Waffen SS and Wehrmacht couldn’t dislodge a single airborne division (without air support due to the weather) before the third army completed an impossible maneuver to relieve (not rescue) them.

    He makes some great points about the tyranny of distance and how the US and the UK were able to overcome it due to the institutions and traditions embedded in their militaries and governments. He makes his case for Caesar’s cook, and it is a very valid case that there was a sort of inevitability that the two greatest industrial economies the world has ever seen, working together, were gonna figure it out eventually due to the very nature of what makes a world dominating economy work, adaptability. When the US and UK can land troops in Morocco and Algeria easier than the Germans and Italians, there is a sense of inevitability.

    Still I see a very different war without a Churchill or a George Marshall. I don’t see the Berlin wall coming down in ’89 without a Reagan, a Thatcher and a Pope John Paul II. Inevitable in that the Soviet system was unsustainable? Sure, but in a much different way perhaps. All credit to Caesar’s cooks, legionaries, engineers and soldiers, but they did have Caesar to lead them.

    • atcDave says:

      I think it is particularly common with British authors to really build up the Wehrmacht. Of course they had a longer war than we did, and faced them at the peak of their prowess. We were also able to benifit from British experience which made for a faster learning curve for us. Although I think it was Kesselring made the observation that between Kasserine Pass and Sicily American troops were improving at an alarming rate.
      Still, you could argue the flip side of your points that as worn down and cut off as the Wehrmacht was in those later battles they still presented a fearsome challenge to a more modern army backed by the world’s largest economy.

      Ultimately I agree that top leadership matters a great deal. Churchill, for all his limitations, had an amazing resolve and fought on when the smart money was against him. And Roosevelt had the foresight to offer support, and jump start American military planning even when the country was extremely isolationist (and no, I won’t praise his economic policies! But foreign policy and military matters he handled masterfully). Basically, a consummate politician recognized a higher call. Amazing.
      I guess I didn’t really take this book to denigrate the great and important leaders so much as fill in details about how things happened. Sort of like Columbus, the caravel and compass all played a role in an epic voyage. Any one without the other didn’t get you anywhere.
      Even Patton couldn’t have relieved (not rescued!) the 101st Airborne if he couldn’t count on Sherman tanks that make a long cross country drive.

      I found it fascinating to see how so many of those more operational sort of details were worked out. And Seabees are amazing!

      • Ernie Davis says:

        I do recognize that there is a tendency to lionize one’s enemy to minimize one’s own defeat at his hands. I always got a kick out of the letters in Ken Burn’s Civil War documentary about the hellish nature of the fight (no doubt true) and the unimaginable ferociousness of the enemy in so many battles. But it is important to remember that early in the war the Wehrmacht victories were accompanied by the same air superiority we enjoyed towards the end, and the inventors of the Blitzkrieg got out Blitzkrieged.

        I still think the Bulge is telling. The Wehrmacht and SS had been stockpiling for months, the allies had lost their airpower advantage, and still multiple panzer and panzer grenadier divisions could not dislodge a poorly equipped and supplied, lightly armed airborne division thrown in to the fight at the last minute.

        I’ve seen statistics showing that the Wehrmacht kill ratio was the highest of all the armies involved, but I’d note that they had the advantage of the Soviet strategy of taking positions and territory through sheer force of numbers.

      • atcDave says:

        Keep in mind though the 101st was veteran and elite, several other units did not fair so well in that same battle.
        But ultimately of course, the Wehrmacht was far from invincible; and the Soviets helped pad their numbers!

      • Ernie Davis says:

        That’s kind of what I was getting at. The Wehrmacht was the best because they were experienced soldiers when they went up against green American units at Kasarine Pass. By the end out experienced elite soldiers held off several of their best. By the end of the war virtually every allied nation had units, both regular and elite, that were every bit the match of the best the Wehrmacht could field.

        And I forgot, definitely CBs. My uncle was one in WWII. I don’t see how the pacific campaign happens without them.

      • atcDave says:

        Yes absolutely on both counts!
        I hadn’t realized how much the Seabees did in Europe too, especially with port repair.
        In several of the war games I’ve played they are essentially just another engineer unit, that uniquely happens to able to defend itself pretty well if attacked. But it’s really impressive the BIG jobs they were able to tackle. Wasn’t their motto something like “the impossible just takes a little longer” (?).

      • Ernie Davis says:

        Yes, this was one of the revelations of this book. You hear CBs you think Pacific, mostly because as I said that theater collapses quickly without them. Theoretically in Europe there was a skilled workforce available, but CBs were more motivated and not prone to strikes.

      • atcDave says:

        Oh yeah, strikes and Europe are practically synonymous.

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